Download Fianna Fáil’s documents on Political and Seanad reform here
Speech by Fianna Fáil Leader Micheál Martin at the Launch of the Party’s Campaign for a No Vote in the Seanad Referendum on October 4th
Next month the Irish people will vote on the largest ever amendment to our constitution. Never before has so much text been involved in delivering so little change.
If passed, this amendment will deliver no reform to the substance of Irish politics. In fact it will make matters worse because it will cement absolute ministerial control over the political system and it will mark the formal end of any change of achieving real political reform.
In 2011 the one issue that every party was agreed on was that the structure of Irish politics was a significant contributor to the crisis which emerged in 2008. Every party accepted the analysis that there needed to be a fundamental revision of the balance of powers within government.
When they won the election Fine Gael and Labour said that they would deliver what the Taoiseach promised would be a “democratic revolution”. He said that we would see profound and deep reform touching every aspect of the state, but the political system would see the most change.
The low levels of satisfaction and trust which the public has with this government, trace to their arrogance and broken promises on a wide range of issues – but their failures on political reform stand out.
Ministers are constantly claiming to have already delivered their promised “democratic revolution” but there has not been one single substantive change to the way Ireland is governed. If this referendum is passed this will remain the case and the moment for reform will have been lost.
A different status for ministerial drivers, a tiny reduction in the number of TDs, the abolition of a level of local government which has almost no powers and the introduction of a new Dáil sitting day where no votes are allowed and no legislation has emerged is certainly change – but to present this, as transformative reform is transparently ridiculous.
Over the last two and a half years the situation has actually got worse. The guillotining of debate has increased. Ministers regularly refuse to answer even basic questions about their performance. Other parties are consulted less, even on issues where achieving a consensus had been easy in the past.
The situation is so bad that even the Fine Gael Whip and Chairman have called their record on parliamentary reform “deplorable”.
Let’s be very clear about one thing – this is not a referendum about retaining the Seanad as it is. No one is arguing for this. Not one person during the debate on the legislation in the Oireachtas or who is campaigning in this referendum is defending the Seanad as it is.
Its deficiencies are clear and no one disputes them. Equally, the effort of ministers to dismiss as irrelevant the thousands of amendments to legislation made by the Seanad or to scapegoat the Seanad for failing to stop the crisis is absurd.
Ireland needs a parliament which is more independent of government and which has the expertise required to oversee a complex and modern state. If you want an example of how dominant ministers are then just look at the debate on the future of the Seanad.
A substantial majority of TDs and Senators argued that the proposal was wrong and that the people should be given an option of reform rather than abolition. Yet the government pushed it through anyway. It refused to allow any amendments and it refused to allow the public a choice of retention with reform.
It appears that the government will this week again attempt to claim that it has a Dáil reform agenda. They say that government intends easing up on its iron grip on everything. It is doing this by developing a plan in secret, with no consultation and which it intends pushing through the Dáil without substantial amendment.
From media reports it appears that they will promise to slightly reduce their use of guillotines and to give committees a bit more time to consider legislation. What it won’t do is dilute in the slightest ministerial control of everything – and this includes throwing TDs off committees if they disagree with ministers.
The Seanad referendum is about being able to claim a record of reform without actually having to deliver it. Parliamentary scrutiny of legislation will be reduced.
The number of occasions where ministers are subject to review will also be reduced. At the same time all power will reside in a Dáil dominated by the decisions of a committee of four members of government.
As we read yesterday, it appears that these ministers no longer view themselves as even subject to the scrutiny of cabinet let alone the Oireachtas. The evidence now is that the bank recapitalisation plan agreed by cabinet was unilaterally abandoned by the Economic Management Council. This is unprecedented and shows just how concentrated power has become in Irish politics.
There is a very different way. The Oireachtas can be reformed. It can become a force for ensuring accountable and effective government. It can make a greater contribution to developing and overseeing sound public policy.
In July we set out the alternative in a political reform document which contains over 70 specific measures to reform both parliament and government in our country. We believe that these proposals deliver on the public’s demand for deep reform of the structures of Irish politics.
However, the only way reform can happen is if this referendum is rejected.
A No vote on October 4th will oblige the government to come back with a proper reform proposal. They will not be able to say that a No vote is a vote for the status quo – they will get a loud and clear message that their claims of a ‘democratic revolution’ are not believed and that they have another two years to deliver.
A No vote will strengthen the hand of those who believe that reform is not about changing the number of people we elect, but about what they do once they are elected.
This is the message we will be taken to the people over the next four weeks. We will be putting up posters and delivering leaflets throughout the country. In between Dáil business I will be undertaking a tour to meet people and to talk to local media about why we need a No in order to secure real reform.
This stands in direct contrast to the Taoiseach who said two weeks ago that he does not intend doing any campaigning on a measure he has hailed as part of a “democratic revolution”. He has claimed the amendment is the most significant since 1937 but he will not talk directly to people and he will not tour the country.
If the Taoiseach is sincere about this referendum being a major reform then he should have basic decency to be willing to debate it. Both he and I have received invitations from broadcasters to participate in direct debate about the referendum before October 4th.
I am willing to debate him on every outlet that will host us. If he ducks the debate, it will send a message to the people about an arrogant government which already has too much power and doesn’t need more.
One half of the government has recognised the divisions in its party by running effectively no campaign. Fine Gael in contrast is spending substantial amounts on the most negative referendum campaign ever seen from a government. We will be dealing with their false claims during the next few weeks.
In light of the continued failure of the government to take on the challenge of real and meaningful reform Fianna Fáil believes that Seanad Eireann should be reformed not abolished.
Our reform proposals actually answer the legitimate questions about the continued role of the Seanad as they build on the work of expert reviews and the lessons learnt from the past few years.
We are putting forward a fresh vision for a Seanad that will act as a check on government ,scrutinise legislation, represent voices that would otherwise not be heard in the national parliament and provide a forum for non-partisan debate and discussion. It gives the Seanad a meaningful role in Irish political life separate and independent from Dáil Eireann.
We are not alone in wanting the Seanad to be retained .A substantial minority of Fine Gael and Labour TDs oppose their own party’s position. Enda Kenny himself has spent 38 years in the Dáil and for 34 of those years he was a staunch defender of the Seanad.
This is an unprecedented crisis. It is the duty of every party to use the available evidence to inform their policies and to change where the evidence requires it.
The political situation has changed very significantly since March 2011.
We have a government with an enormous majority which has shown how bad things can get when it exercises its absolute control over the Dáil. This government’s behaviour has been the strongest argument in favour of retaining the Seanad and we have responded appropriately to what even they admit is a “deplorable” record.
Next month the choice is between concentrating even more power in the hands of the government or demanding something better.
I believe that once the people study the proposal and see what it represents they will vote No and demand real political reform.